In the end, the message from law enforcement to Emerald Triangle marijuana cultivators is to begin applying for permits and working with the regulatory agencies as quickly as possible or risk a visit from them later on. Pictured: Pueblo County is one of the only places in Colorado that allows for commercial cannabis grows outside, such as the marijuana farm Los Sueños Farms LLC on September 3, 2016. (Vince Chandler, The Denver Post)

Blurred lines: Officials from California’s Emerald Triangle talk compliance vs. criminality

‘Once you’ve registered and put your name and contact information on there, you can’t get out. You can’t get back into the black market’: A look at how Humboldt County in California’s Emerald Triangle is handling new programs to legitimize medical marijuana growers

This year Humboldt County and California touted new programs to legitimize medical marijuana growers who have long operated in the dark, but the line between compliance and criminality still remains somewhat blurred.

In Humboldt County, those seeking to operate a medical marijuana business have until the end of the year to submit their applications for business licenses with the Planning and Building Department, but that hasn’t stopped state and local law enforcement from carrying out their duties to uphold existing cultivation and environmental laws.

With the new rules and the possibility of a recreational industry becoming legal, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey said the regulatory landscape is in a “very confusing time at all levels.”

“It is a new procedure and there is still a lot of discretionary ability left to the deputy in the field,” he said. “We have to be aware of that. As we hit these areas and we find these areas of disagreement, then we work with (the county Planning and Building Department) on how we can clear this area of disagreement up so we don’t have a negative outcome.

“This is a long-term process and I don’t want to deter anyone from registering and going forward with the application process,” Downey continued.

About 2,300 people have registered their intent with the county to apply for a medical marijuana business license, but merely registering is not enough to turn law enforcement away from a farm or prevent a crop from being cut down.

Case in point: the law enforcement raid at a Blocksburg cannabis farm on Aug. 9.

Sheriff’s office investigators along with state law enforcement served a search warrant, detained two people — the land leassee and his environmental consultant — and eradicated the leassee’s 3,300-plant grow. The leassee had registered his intent to get a county permit in late July.

The sheriff’s office conducted a fly-over of the property on Aug. 3 and met with the property owner who told the investigators that the man he leased his property to claimed to have the necessary permits to cultivate, according to the sheriff’s office.

In its press release on the raid, the sheriff’s office stated that the cannabis grower had submitted an application to the county the day after the sheriff’s office flew a helicopter over the property.

“The subjects stated it was not a coincidence, and that they submitted the application because they assumed law enforcement would be responding to the property and he wanted to appear legitimate,” the news release states.

The Blocksburg farmer and his environmental consultant declined to be interviewed for this article.

California Growers Association Executive Director Hezekiah Allen said the raids on cannabis operators are “counterproductive” to the goal of the regulations, which is to bring as many growers into compliance to prevent environmental and safety impacts that have run rampant by a black market industry over several decades.

“When someone shows a willingness to play by those rules, we need to put more value to that than we currently are,” Allen said.

While the sheriff’s office and county do not see registering intent to be enough to show compliance, Allen said it is a significant step.

“Once you’ve registered and put your name and contact information on there, you can’t get out,” Allen said. “You can’t get back into the black market.

“… We see all this squabbling about ‘You can’t sign up after this deadline,’ ” Allen continued. “That is beyond foolish. The truth of the matter is we want every single grower on that list. That way we can hold them accountable if they don’t hold up to the requirements.”

Downey said the sheriff’s office does not use the county’s registry to target and single out people for raids. Instead, he said it is one of many databases they cross-reference to check whether that individual is in the process of applying for a permit.

“We do check the database before we get ready to raid the property to check if they are in the process,” he said. “We have walked away from a few grows that were permitted. Some were far enough in the process.”

But how far is far enough?

For California Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. Supervisor DeWayne Little, the mandate is to protect the environment. So if personnel see any signs of environmental degradation or possible violations of law, they’ll investigate no matter what.

Little said they cross-reference the property with the county, with the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and other regulatory agencies to see whether that property owner has applied for the necessary permits.

“If they have no permits being processed, then typically we will continue with our investigation and proceed with a search warrant,” Little said.

And that outcome is more common than not, Little said. In the last month, Little said his department has investigated up to 30 marijuana farms and have walked away from “a couple” that had already applied for a permit. Of the grows that he visited on Wednesday, none were enrolled in any of the regulatory programs.

“If you haven’t done so and haven’t filled out any paperwork, we shouldn’t be looking to give you a bye if you haven’t even tried,” Little said. “…When people say that I’ve initiated this process, I‘ll be honest with you, there may have been a few that tried to enroll, but the environmental violations we so egregious that we weren’t going to walk way from them.”

Even if a grower is not on the database, having the proper documentation will be enough to prove they’re seeking permits, Downey said.

County Planning and Building Department interim Director Rob Wall said during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that marijuana business applicants must adhere to minimum requirements to even begin the application process. If they meet those minimum requirements, the applicant will be given a letter from the department stating that while their application is incomplete, they are in the process of being compliant. Wall said this letter can be used as an affidavit of sorts to show to law enforcement should they visit the property.

In the end, the message from law enforcement to cultivators is to begin applying for permits and working with the regulatory agencies as quickly as possible or risk a visit from them later on.

The county’s commercial medical marijuana regulations took effect in late February. Allen said that expecting an industry that has been operating in the shadows for decades to be prepared to submit a permit “overnight” is not realistic.

“People are going to take time and there is a human element to procrastination, but there is also a simple logistical challenge,” he said. “These permits are not easy to fill out.”

As of Tuesday, about 220 cannabis permit applications were filed with the Planning and Building Department. County Senior Planner Steve Lazar said he expects there to be a flood of applications coming in at the end of the year.

So what if a cultivator is willing to come into compliance, is working to meet the minimum standards, but wakes up to find a host of law enforcement officials outside their property one morning before they’ve filed their application?

Fifth District Humboldt County Supervisor Ryan Sundberg said that is a possibility, but said that the application period has been open for nearly seven months at this point.

“People have known this is coming for a little while now so they’ve had time to get into the Planning (and Building) Department and figure it out,” Sundberg said. “If you are following the rules and have applied, you’re pretty safe.”

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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